Picks and Pans Review: Jefferson in Paris

updated 04/10/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1995 01:00AM

Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Thandie Newton, Simon Callow

Like all Merchant-Ivory films, this stately biographical epic is glacially paced—if it moved any slower, it would be a tree. Yet even after 200 years, Thomas Jefferson maintains his preternatural versatility; he makes a great movie subject too.

The movie is set in France in 1784-89, during Jefferson's stint as American ambassador. The German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala barely addresses the American Revolution. Instead she disrespectfully treats Jefferson as an international celebrity-soap-opera character who pays much more attention to the incipient French Revolution and his English-Italian girlfriend than he does to his own newborn country's early struggles. Jhabvala also obsesses about Jefferson's attitude toward slavery in general and his own slaves in particular, as if the convoluted, and fascinating, problems of nationhood and politics Jefferson faced are beyond her understanding.

She and director James Ivory even frame the story using flashback interviews with James Earl Jones, playing one of the children Jefferson supposedly had with Sally Hemings, the slave who was a nursemaid to his daughters and who later may have become Jefferson's mistress.

Overdone as it is, the conflict between Jefferson's libertarian principles and his ownership of slaves does provide Nolte with his best scenes and lets Ivory give a substantial introduction to the Zimbabwean-English Newton, who plays Hemings in an admirably restrained, if not especially seductive fashion. Scacchi, meanwhile, plays the coquettish wife of an apparently homosexual English artist, the effectively foppish Callow. Jefferson, a widower, had promised his late wife he would never remarry, so he and the woman, Maria Cosway, carried on a devoted, though essentially chaste, affair for many years, even after Jefferson left Paris and became Secretary of State.

The Merchant-Ivory machine, which has always displayed a weakness for high-toned melodrama—Danielle Steel with a proper accent—wallows in the tentative Nolte-Scacchi romance and Nolte's less reticent advances on Newton, even as King Louis XVI (Michael Lonsdale) and Marie Antoinette (Charlotte de Turckheim) are coping with the growing rebellion. Nolte, while he cuts a dashing 18th-century figure and seems to resemble Jefferson vaguely, never suggests with much conviction the depth of intellect and aesthetic imagination Jefferson possessed. (PG-13)

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